Has anyone else taken the solitude found during the COVID-19 pandemic to rediscover their stash of baseball cards?
Now, imagine you were given a pack of old baseball cards and an opportunity to travel around North America to meet up with those players to talk about their respective lives after baseball.
That’s the initial premise for Brad Balukjian’s new book, “The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search Of Baseball’s Afterlife.” During the summer of 2015, Balukjian embarked on 11,341-mile adventure to find the players he found in a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards.
The book also has a few connections to Alberta. Balukjian’s boyhood idol, Don Carman, pitched in six games for the Calgary Cannons in 1993. Gary Pettis patrolled the outfield for the Edmonton Trappers in 1983 and 1987, while long-time shortstop Garry Templeton managed the Trappers in 2000. And former Toronto Blue Jay Rance Mulliniks was a visitor to the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball’s annual banquet earlier this year.
As we discovered in our conversation with Balukjian for Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast, he discovered a lot more than baseball players. The book has been described as a “part baseball nostalgia, part roadtrip travelogue” that also finds him doing a little self-discovery.
Q: Take us back to the very beginning and when you first thought you wanted to turn this idea into a book?
A: I have always wanted to write a book. As a writer, you think about different book ideas and play around with different things. For me, I realized that sitting at a baseball game that the guys that I grew up with, the players from that era in the 1980s, you know, I used to know those guys so well because of their baseball cards.
I used to collect the cards as a kid and I knew their statistics. And back then, you know, it was pre-internet and baseball cards were our iPhone of the day, right? That’s what we spent our time holding and being fixated on. So I realized that in the current game, even though I still follow baseball, I don’t really know the players that well and I don’t know their statistics.
So I started wondering “what ever happened to the guys I grew up watching?” And I think that kind of “where are they now” theme is something that is universally attractive to people and is interesting. So that’s what first got me going.
Then I started to think about the actual vessel for the cards back in the day, which was the wax pack and I thought about how cool it would be if you could get a pack that had never been opened, which could provide the device for picking a random sample of guys from that era to track down. And as somebody whose favourite players were always the guys who weren’t the superstars, it would also give me a chance to write about the guys that I liked the most as a kid. So that was kind of my entry point for the idea.
Q: Was there a specific player you had in mind or did you actually go out and buy a pack of cards and that was the starting point?
A: Yeah, I made a deal that I was going to get a pack and I would be constrained by whatever players were in that pack. But as I say in the book in the spirit of full disclosure, I did open up multiple packs because if I just went with one and I got, you know, half the guys had passed away or something, it wouldn’t make for a very good book. So I opened up several packs but I made sure not to mix and match the cards between packs. The pack that I ended up going with included my favourite player as a kid, a guy named Don Carman. The integrity of that pack was in tact, those guys were all bundled together.
Q: Why Don Carman?
A: Hahaha! Yeah, good question! That question goes throughout the book because, other than him being a guy who, again, was an underdog player who of course played for my team which was the (Philadelphia) Phillies, there was nothing particular beyond that has drawn me to him. I thought it was pretty uncanny as I got to know him in the book, how similar I actually am to him.
I mean, I’m a scientist, I teach biology, I’m not one prone to the notion that, you know, everything happens for a reason or fate and all that. But I gotta say, it’s kind of making a believer out of me because if you read the book, you’ll see that the number of parallels in my life and Don Carman’s life are pretty amazing other than the fact that I obviously didn’t play Major League Baseball. There is a lot that I have in common with him. Maybe it was meant to be that he was my favourite player.
Q: What made you decide to add the travel element to this? Because it could have been easy to just pick up a phone or do interviews on Skype or whatever the case may be.
A: That’s because, to me, this is a narrative. This is a story. To me, it’s not just about the idea of tracking the guys down or telling their stories or even baseball from that era. I think journalists and people who do this kind of writing are storytellers and I wanted to write the best possible, most compelling story I could about these guys and this experience and that era. And to do that, I felt like the best way to do that would be to actually take a giant, monster roadtrip because then there would be so much more to write about, right?
There would be the places I’d go to, the experience of the road. And then I think right now we’re in the middle of this pandemic and everyone’s shut in, everyone’s still communicating over phone and Zoom and all these things, but I think … it’s nothing like an in-person thing, right? We can talk to each other through digital means but it’s nowhere near the experience of being face-to-face.
I knew that as a writer, I would have a much better experience and product if I went out and actually met these guys face-to-face so I could use all the senses and describe the settings that I was in and read someone’s emotions. It’s really hard to read someone’s emotions, even through a web cam. I mean, it’s different. Ultimately, what I wanted to do was tell a story about people and about human emotion and not just about baseball. I think the best way to accomplish that is to get out there and do it in person.
Q: Do you have a favourite chapter or player?
A: Yeah, definitely Don Carman. It was actually two chapters about him. One, where I go back to the tiny town of 200 people in western Oklahoma where he grew up. And literally finding the house where he grew up, or what’s left of the house he grew up in. Meeting his mom and his coach and trying to set the stage with his back story. Then in a later chapter, I go to Naples, Florida and meet him in person and end up going to the zoo with him.
That’s where we had what I think was the highlight of the book, which is the encounter of meeting my own hero but then having things flip and then all of a sudden, this guy who was my hero is so open and so vulnerable with me to the point that within an hour of meeting him, he’s crying in front of me. You could never expect that, right?
Q: How challenging was it to put a book like this together with so many variables at play, like trying to track down the players and then when you do meet them, actually convincing them to be a part of a project like this?
A: Yeah, I mean all of those things. There were multiple challenges, as you say, in different ways. But I tried to use that as an asset in the book in that, when a guy wouldn’t talk to me or I couldn’t get to somebody or I somehow ran into a roadblock, I just wrote about that in the narrative. It became part of the story. I think stories are interesting because of conflict. If you have a story about everything going great and everyone’s a great guy, it’s pretty boring. So my approach was to be as honest and real as possible.
As someone who has no particular special connection or background in sports writing, I am kind of like the “every man” who has this opportunity or is making an opportunity to meet these guys who I idolized as a kid. And then where doors are slammed in my face, sometimes literally, I’m just going to write about that and that’s part of the story. I think embracing that honesty makes it a much better and more compelling read.
Q: Was it difficult from a personal standpoint to come to grips with your own self – whether it be meeting up with people from your distant past or coming to grips with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as an example?
A: I looked at this as an opportunity to explore my own life. When I take this trip, I’m in my mid-30s and there’s a nice parallel there because almost all of these players had to retire around the same age in their mid-30s because they were done and that’s where your skills leave you as an athlete.
So, here I am in my mid-30s and at one time, I would have thought I would have been married and having kids by then, and nope, still single, still on my own with no kids. I’m at this crossroads in my life, where do I go next, and all my friends are getting married and having kids.
I used that as a way to explore my own life and asking the players, “What happened to you when you were my age?” Because they had to go through their own crossroads as they were done playing and they had the rest of their lives in front of them. Yet, they could no longer do the one thing they were trained to do their whole life by playing baseball.
So I liked playing with this theme of having these guys as my own mentors in a way. Then I reflect a lot in the book about, as you said, meeting up with the woman I once thought I would marry and seeing her again on the trip. And then going back to the place where I had gone through this intense OCD therapy and drawing parallels between my own struggles with OCD and anxiety and the kind of anxiety that these guys dealt with both on and off the field.
Q: Did you learn anything about yourself along all the paths you took?
A: Yeah, I think I learned and had reinforced by the players the notion about what’s really important about baseball and in life in general is really being as present as you can. I call baseball players “accidental Buddhists” because even without realizing it, they were able to be so successful and get to the major leagues because they were so good at living in the moment and living in the present. You know, immediately forgetting the failure that came in their last at-bat and not worrying about the game tomorrow. I think we can all learn from that, right, that we only have control over so much and that’s whatever is right in front of us and the behaviour we take.
So I would say that was one lesson. The other one is that it’s kind of heartening to realize that we all have a lot more in common with baseball players than we’d ever realize. Part of this process in meeting these guys and having them be so open with me was demystifying them as these kind of gods. And they’re not, they’re just people who deal with the same shit that you and I deal with. That was kind of a nice thing to realize.
Q: Did you find yourself in awe at times, where you weren’t expecting something out of a certain player?
A: Yeah, definitely. Multiple times where they would get emotional or sort of open up. That kind of was surprising to me. I didn’t think they would necessarily let their guard down that much. But I appreciated that. It was flattering that they would be willing to be that open and vulnerable with me.
Q: When you look back on it, did you write the book you had in mind or did it transform itself into something you weren’t expecting in the beginning?
A: Yeah and I think the beauty of it was that it became something bigger than I thought it was going to be. Initially, it was just this open-ended, “What happened to these guys?” And how did they handle life after baseball. Through the process, I got all these other themes coming in like the father-son relationship and how they handled some of the trauma with that and their vulnerability. Race became an issue in talking with guys like Garry Templeton and Al Cowen’s family about what it was like to be a black player in the 70s and 80s. Those were things that I didn’t really know would come up along the way, but I think they made the book a lot better.
Q: When you think about it from a reader’s perspective, what do you hope they take away from the book?
A: Well, I hope that they are not just entertained and not just informed. This book was a challenge to write, to get a deal for. I mean, it took a long time to get published because I took the trip on my own dime, I had no book deal, I had no advance and then I had to come back and try to get a deal after I had taken the trip. And I got a lot of rejection and had a lot of people that said this wasn’t going to work and, “Why should you be a character in the book?” … but I stuck to my guns.
I always felt like the vision I had for the book – which was to be this multi-genre book that is part baseball, part memoir and part travelogue but really, it would go beyond baseball – that it would have lessons for people that go beyond the experience of these baseball players. I think that’s what I hope people can get out of it is that they have a lot more in common with these players and they can learn a lot of lessons that they can apply to their own life from what comes out of this roadtrip.
— That SportsCard show Podcast (@TSCSPodcast) January 13, 2020
Q: What did it mean to you to see this all come to fruition and to have a physical copy of the book in your hands?
A: Well, the first time you do anything, I think it’s always the most memorable, right? So, people have asked me, “What’s your next book going to be about?” And it’s like I have ideas but I go back to the idea of being in the present. To me, I’m enjoying every part of this process, from beginning to end. When I first got the book, the actual copy from the publisher, yeah, I won’t underplay it, it was a great feeling to see six years of labour, you know, kind of wrapped up in this physical object. So I take a lot of pride in being able to see this symbol of all that in the book.
Q: I’d be remiss then if I didn’t ask the question about ideas you might have for the next book or do you plan on taking a full breather here?
A: Yeah, I mean I’ve had some thoughts but I don’t think I’d do another book the same way as this, like a sequel or anything. I know people have said I should do another one and I just don’t think it would ever be as good as the original. The idea has been done. Before this, I wrote a lot of shorter stuff. Like I said, I’m a biology professor so I usually write about science so I have a lot of ideas in that area. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll do some shorter stuff again because six years is a long time to invest in one thing.